This week for Bible Study (we are using Bible Road Trip if you are interested) we are reading the second part of Judges. If you are unfamiliar with Judges, it focuses on the cycle of falling away from God that plagued the Israelites after entering the Promised Land.
The people would follow God and remember all He had done for them. And then they would fall into sin with their neighbors, worshiping their Gods and just leading generally sinful lives. God would remove his protective hand from them and let them fall into captivity or become subjugated by one of the warring neighbors. Finally they would cry out to God, and most likely make plenty of promises to always stay faithful to God if He would only deliver them. God would raise up a judge who would lead them out of their subjugation. Inevitably they would follow God for a time but then fall into sinful ways and idolatry, and the cycle would continue.
Today we read about Jephthah – God raised him up to save the Israelites from the Ammonites. When Jephthah asked God to give the Ammonites into his hand in battle, he made an oath to God to offer up as a burnt sacrifice the first thing that greeted him when he returned after the battle. As it happened, it was his daughter, his only child, that came through the gate to greet him when he returned. He was sorely distressed but after giving her two months to mourn, he carried through with his oath.
“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.””
Judges 11:30-35 NIV
However, we also read that in the book of Leviticus, the idea of thoughtless oaths had already been addressed. If a person made a thoughtless or careless oath – one they forgot to fulfill or could or should not fulfill (as in Jephthah’s case) – whether with good or bad intentions – that person had sinned, and once they realize their sin needed to confess to the priest and make a sin offering. Jephthah was guilty of making a sinful oath, and rather than carry through with the oath, he ought to have confessed it as a sin and made atonement.
“or if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt— when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the Lord a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.”
Leviticus 5:4-6 NIV
In Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus expands on many topics, includin the making of oaths. He says the people had been instructed long ago to not break their vows, but to fulfill any vows to God they had made. But Jesus told the people not to swear oaths at all, because what could a person truly swear by? Simply make your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No.
““Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:33-37 NIV
This is something that is still so relevant in our lives today. How many of us swear, or promise to do things, and either make these promises casually with no real intention of following through, or promise something so unrealistic or unlikely that following through can’t or won’t happen? We make things much worse for ourselves when we compound our problems with thoughtless promises.
Not following through with an action is bad enough, but we make it so much worse when we swear or promise to do something and it doesn’t happen. Think about the damage to relationships that comes from making promises or vows. Thoughtless promises made to people are harmful enough, but how much worse is it when we make vows and promises to God that we don’t fulfill? Jesus made it clear – don’t make promises or oaths. Just keep it simple with a Yes or a No – and let your Yes mean Yes and your No mean No. If you say you are going to do it, do it. Don’t make it complicated with a promise or an oath, just do what you say you are going to do.